Going Back to College, College, College …

Tributes to LL Cool J (back when he was a rapper) aside, earlier this week Eduflack has the honor and privilege to spend a little time up at Williams College to guest talk at Williams’ Political Leadership course.

The course is taught each year by Jane Swift, the former governor of Massachusetts and the CEO of the terrific Middlebury Interactive Languages. I’ll go on the record and declare I am a HUUGE fan of Governor Swift. That might surprise some, who remember that back in the day I ran a congressional campaign where she was the opponent and I did and said things in the heat of the campaign that I wish I could do over, but it is true. The good governor and I reconnected about a decade ago, after she transitioned from being chief executive of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and was focusing her enormous energies on her passions of education and education technology.

For all the folks who bemoan edtech and how online learning has stripped all meaning from classroom instruction and has kids focused on rote memorization of math and English items for the state test, take a look at what Swift has built up at Middlebury. She and her team have been able to harness the power of interactive technologies to teach foreign language to students across the nation. And they have done it in ways that better prepares the learners for the 21st century, both in their language fluency and in their approach to learning in general.

But I digress. Back to Williamstown and the textbook New England college campus at Williams. As part of Political Leadership (LEAD 250/PSCI 205), this week’s class was focused on trends and tactics when it comes to establishing a political narrative. I was fortunate enough to spend nearly four hours with students in the class. And I was amazed by what I learned from the students.

We can be so quick to stereotype students, particularly in the context of politics. It doesn’t help when it is on a campus like Williams, that carries a long-standing reputation for liberalism. But I found students who represented the political spectrum. More importantly, I engaged with students who had deep reasons for their political beliefs. Those who could distinguish the different forms of feminism when explaining why they may be for or against Hillary Clinton. Those who didn’t share the distain for the fly-over states that we hear from so many political prognosticators. Those who had looked through the talking points of all of the viable candidates to really drill down on how they would lead, who was advising them, and who would be at their sides in a new presidential administration.

What I heard was what “educated voters” continue to say is absent — a new generation of voters who are passionate about issues, inquisitive about candidates, and determined to be informed as to both how politics and policy work. And it helped that these students were also interested in education policy, particularly how it should impact politics but rarely does.

It’s very easy to voice frustration with “today’s college students.” Demands for free college, safe spaces, and the like make it very easy to caricature those on our college campuses. But my visit to Williams gave me hope. I saw the sort of students I wished I had been during my own postsecondary experience. I saw them questioning and pushing back on convention. I saw them seeking to better understand a political system that has largely either taken them for granted or written them off. I saw the future.

 

Does Online Ed Lack Integrity? Seriously?

I don’t want to make Eduflack an ed-policy-check blog about the Hillary Clinton campaign. After critiquing the Hillary effort earlier this week, I pledged to myself I was done with presidential campaign edu-politics for a while.

Then Carl Straumsheim, a part of the terrific reporting team over at Inside Higher Education, has to go and discover and then write up what he did today about Hillary’s edu-speech this week and its remarks about online education.

As Straumsheim reported:

In a version of the plan distributed to the media this past weekend, the campaign said, “We must restore integrity to online learning and will not tolerate programs that fall short,” as though online education has recently lost its way. The campaign reworded the sentence before Monday’s announcement, however. The published version reads, “We must bring integrity to online learning” — as though it never had any in the first place.

Unfortunately, the Clinton campaign didn’t respond to IHE’s request for comment to the report. So we are all left guessing by what they intended and why what was written was actually written (and spoken).

I want to give the Clinton campaign the benefit of the doubt. I really do. I want to believe this was just a clumsy attempt to talk about the problems facing for-profit higher education today. It was a way to voice concerns about gainful employment and the collapse of Corinthian Colleges and the hope that a college degree has meaning, regardless of who’s name is on the top of the sheepskin.

But by using the words that she did, and editing them the way that she did, Hillary simply adds fuel to a fire that is already confusing far too many. She is using online education as a synonym for for-profit education. She is confusing instructional delivery method with the administrative mission and responsibility. And she is wrong in doing so.

There are a great number of traditional, not-for-profit colleges and universities that use online education. IHE mentions Hillary’s own alma mater, Wellesley College. We could add Bill’s undergraduate school, Georgetown University, to the list of colleges playing in online ed. And institutions such as Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and even my own University of Virginia make the list.

Surely we aren’t suggesting that these colleges and the hundreds like them that are using online delivery to reach today’s students lack integrity, are we? Does she really mean that every institution that currently offers blended learning or online platforms or even MOOCs lacks integrity? That a program “falls short” simply because it isn’t delivered through a traditional classroom setting, with a single professor talking before a lecture hall of hundreds of desks (many of which may have students sitting in them)?

If she meant to criticize for-profit higher education providers like Corinthian (and many of them do deserve criticism) then just come right out and say it. But remember that a provider like University of Phoenix provides far more “education” through its traditional, bricks-and-mortar storefronts that Hillary seems to embrace than it does through its online offerings. And don’t forget that, until earlier this year, Bill Clinton just wrapped up five years as the “honorary chancellor” of the Laureate International Universities for-profit and online chain (and earned millions of dollars for the honor, according to the NYT.)

Since 2007 or 2008, Eduflack has waxed semi-eloquently on this blog about the value and benefits of online learning. Much of it has been focused on K-12 blended learning efforts, but some of it has also been directed toward higher education. Today’s learners are not like those of a previous generation. Online learning allows all of us to ensure that tech-savvy students don’t need to unplug or de-skill when they enter a classroom. It ensures that a student is not denied an academic path of choice because of geographic limitations. It helps students pursue postsecondary education on their terms, building programs that work with the growing demands of families, work, and life.

Done right, online education empowers the learner. It puts the decision making in the hands of the student, and not just the provider. And it can require an education provider to improve instruction, delivery, content, and overall quality as a result.

Online education has enormous power when it comes to opening doors to those previously denied and leveling the learning playing fields.

Do some providers abuse that power and offer an inferior product? Absolutely. But the same can be said of bricks-and-mortar institutions that will enroll any warm body willing to take out loans to pay rising tuition costs. Our focus should be on the quality of instruction-however it is delivered-and not exclusively on the model being used to deliver it.

Mrs. Clinton, I hope you intend to continue to push on the discussion of integrity and institutional quality in higher education. But please don’t use such a broad brush in the process. Let’s look at grad rates and employment statistics. Let’s look at institutional costs and student loan debt. Let’s even discuss the merits, or lack there of, of for-profit higher education.

But let’s not suggest online education lacks integrity. Education, whether online or delivered in any other method, depends of the quality, values, and character of the person delivering it. Whether they do it in a classroom, online, from the town square, or at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, integrity is a measure of the quality of the product, not the means for delivering it.

Empty Bookshelves?

As a student, I always loved the start of a new school year.  The weeks leading up to that first day meant new shoes (though I was never able to buy the expensive brand names, and <tear> never owned a pair of Air Jordans).  It meant new school clothes (for me, typically purchased from the husky department at Sears).  And it most definitely meant a visit to the stationery store, where I got to choose from a plethora of new pens, notebooks, and other “needed” supplies.

To this day, I am still a pen guy (though my tastes are much more expensive now).  And I was extremely excited to take my oldest school supply shopping a few weeks ago, as we prepare for the demands of the first day of kindergarten.
In reading the latest news, though, it seems the one thing I took for granted at the start of the school year was always expecting there would be new textbooks waiting for me in the new classroom.  The smell of fresh print.  The crack of a new spine.  The opportunity to be the first name in a textbook that would be circulated for the next six or eight years.  The issuance of textbooks was a central part of the start of the school year.
Unfortunately, many kids down in Texas won’t have that experience this week.  According to the San Antonio Express-News, many school districts could be waiting months before they have this year’s new textbooks.  The reason?  The state decided to change the textbook procurement laws, and, as a result, districts didn’t begin to place textbook orders until August 8 (when they typically make such orders in April).  A spokesperson for the Texas Education Agency told the Express-News that “publishers just couldn’t get them shipped to all the districts in the state in time for the opening day of school.”  And that’s a cryin’ shame.
But what about those classrooms that didn’t order for Houghton Mifflin Harcourt?  Do they patiently wait for books to arrive in time for Christmas?  Do they squeeze another year out of texts that should have been replaced several years ago?  Do they try and switch suppliers?  Or do they look for other options?
Those districts that have discretionary dollars have some options.  They can turn to supplemental suppliers, who can provide content not typically offered by the basals (and content that could then be used well after the textbooks arrive).  They can look to tap into open education resources and available online resources, assuming they have the technology and teachers necessary to maximize such offerings.  They can look to implement a stop-gap solution so learning doesn’t slow or stop because of lack of expected materials.  
Unfortunately, most districts don’t have such discretionary dollars these days.  Those districts are left to either make do with decade-old materials or hope they made the right choice in selection a textbook vendor that could accommodate needs for the entire academic year, despite changes in how textbooks would be ordered and funded.  And while that may work for the middle manager filling out POs, it certainly doesn’t work for the kids in need of textbooks or the teachers expected to actually instruct come the start of the school year.
I’ll let EdSec Arne Duncan and Texas Gov. Rick Perry slug it out on the quality of Texas schools and the student test scores resultant from them.  But can anyone truly start the school year without English, math, or ESOL textbooks?  And can anyone possibly say, with a straight face, that any child going a few months without a textbook isn’t going to be impacted in the long run?
If you can, I may have a book to sell you … if you can wait a few months.
  
(Full disclosure: Eduflack has advised Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and other publishers, basal and otherwise, over the years.)

Pencils, Bubble Sheets, and Erasures

After yet another investigation into alleged cheating on DC Public Schools’ student achievement tests, DCPS officials yesterday announced that they were tossing out the standardized test scores for three classrooms.  If one reads between the lines, it appears that the current action was based on allegations that someone altered the beloved bubble tests after the students took the exam.

This follows on the heels of similar allegations in Atlanta last year, which forced the resignation of long-time Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall.  And, of course, this isn’t the first time that DCPS has investigated alleged altering of the bubble sheets on its exams.  The same charges were levied just a few years ago.
For the past few years, we have heard EdSec Arne Duncan rail against the dreaded “bubble test.”  And while the good EdSec may be taking issue with such exams for a very different reason, he is correct.  The days of No.2 pencils and scanned bubble sheets should be over. 
With a growing chorus of opposition to bubble tests, with allegations of cheating on said tests on the rise, and with those pencil-and-scan sheet exams viewed as a general enemy to the educational process, it begs some essential questions.  Why aren’t we testing through other means?  In our 21st century learning environment, why do we still use 19th century testing approaches?  Can we build a better testing mousetrap?
Those first two questions are typically answered with the usual responses.  Change is more difficult than the status quo.  We fear the new.  If it isn’t truly broken, why try to fix it?  It costs too much, either in dollars or in stakeholder chits.  We don’t know enough yet (maybe we can form a committee to explore).  It just isn’t a high enough priority.
As for the last question, though, we have already built a better mousetrap.  A few states have begun using online adaptive testing, demonstrating promising practice (on its way to best practice).  The gold standard, at this point, is Oregon’s OAKS Online, or the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.  Following on its heels are similar online adaptive assessment systems in Hawaii and Delaware.  And with a $176 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (led by the State of Washington) is looking to develop a similar assessment framework to measure the K-12 Common Core State Standards.
Why these new systems?  To the point, they seem to assess student achievement and learning faster and better than ye olde bubble sheets, at a lower cost to the states.  From a practical point of view, they hopefully bring testing up to speed with instruction and learning.  If we are serious about a 21st century education for all, it only makes sense that we would couple that with 21st century assessment.  And that just isn’t done with a stick of wood and some graphite.
So in looking at alleged issues in DC, Atlanta, and elsewhere, the last questions we should be asking is how to avoid erasures on tests or the best way to detect systematic changes on bubble sheets.  Instead, we should be asking why we aren’t using a more effective testing system in the first place, a system that better aligns with both where we are headed on instruction and how today’s — and tomorrow’s — students actually learn?
* Full disclosure — Eduflack does work related to the assessment efforts in Oregon, Hawaii, and Delaware.         

College-Ready E-Learning in the Sunshine

When it comes to education improvement, do little things happen in small packages?  Thanks to the past two years, we are used to looking for megadeals.  Race to the Top offered up four billion dollars; i3 another $650 million.  The Gates Foundation often drops tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars on the latest and greatest.  Even the recent News Corp. deal for Wireless Generation caught many by surprised, based solely on the size of the deal.

So why is Eduflack so taken by a couple of million investment that crossed the electronic desk?  Today, the Florida Virtual School announced a $2 million award from the Gates Foundation.  The project?  Florida Virtual School will use the funds to develop four college readiness courses in English and math.
In its announcement, Florida Virtual states, “the courses will emphasize 21st century skills such as authentic skill development, critical thinking, contemporary research opportunities and real world experiences.”     
Most who follow digital education know that Florida Virtual School is the king of e-learning.  So it should come as no surprise that it is trying to get out in front, developing the next generation of college-ready K-12 curriculum.  So why is a $2 million announcement so interesting?
1) It appears Florida Virtual is trying to get out in front of the Common Core Standards effort.  If Gates is funding this, it is a relatively safe bet that the courses developed will align with the new CC standards (particularly since Florida has to adopt them as part of its RttT win).  So after all the hand-wringing on how far behind we are in moving the CCSSI into practice, Florida Virtual is now planning to beta test its ELA courses by January 2012, with math coming the following year.
2) Surprise, surprise, but 21st century skills may not be dead after all.  With STEM coming forward a few years ago and the Obama Administration now pushing college and career readiness, most assumed that 21st century skills had gone the way of the dodo.  But by emphasizing curriculum based on such skills (with Gates money no less) it seems the softer side of instructional improvement — 21st century skills — may be back for a second policy go.
3) We are reminded that e-learning is not just about delivery.  Florida Virtual is reminding us that content remains king.  The leader in digital education continues to make clear that buying curriculum off the shelf is not how you build a world-class e-learning platform.  Florida Virtual is not just teaching it, they are building it.  Faculty will have ownership in it.  It will be relevant to the program and to its goals.
It is rare for Eduflack to truly embrace something, praising virtues instead of picking on failings.  But this is one instance where I want to accentuate the positive.  Julie Young, the President and CEO of Florida Virtual School may just be right here.  If done correctly and with fidelity, this effort could be “a win-win, especially for students.”
 

Buckeye-Style E-Learning

At its heart, is e-learning about improving educational opportunity or lowering instructional costs?  Last week, Eduflack was talking with a school district in West Virginia.  Following a growing wave, school districts in the Mountain State are prohibiting new textbook purchases in a tough budget environment.  As an alternative, districts are being directed to use e-learning to replace textbook adoptions and ensure students have up-to-date learning materials.

But in a district that doesn’t have the technology to deliver optimum e-learning, is such digital instruction really a cost saver?  Do we get around that $100 textbook, which is usually good for seven or nine years, by purchasing a low-cost laptop (which have to be replaced often due to loss, breakage, or general wear-and-tear) and then purchasing the curriculum and other instructional needs?  Are there enough high-quality open educational resources (OER) to secure the free digital instructional materials to effectively replace a textbook and its supplementary materials?  And does making the shift from paper to electronic actually boost student achievement and school effectiveness?
These are some of the questions that many are working to find answers to.  Late last year, the Foundation for Excellence in Education released its Digital Learning Now! report as part of the coming out of its Digital Learning Council.  The report offers up 10 reccs for high-quality digital learning.  Written specifically for governors and state-level policy makers, the Foundation makes clear that real action on e-learning is going to happen in state capitals, and not necessarily in our nation’s capital.
Next week, it looks like the discussion is going to drill down even further.  Some of the true leaders in e-learning will gather in Columbus, Ohio to talk about how digital learning can have a positive impact on education in Ohio and in the United States.  Those in politics know that as goes Ohio (or maybe Missouri), so goes the nation.  We also know that the Buckeye State now has a new, cost-conscious governor and a state budget in need of significant reductions.
So on Tuesday, leaders from Ohio’s business and education sectors, as well as the community at large, will hear from folks like Bob Wise, former West Virginia governor and current President of the Alliance for Excellent Education: Andy Ross, the GM of Global Services for Florida Virtual School; and Tom Vander Ark, partner at Vander Ark/Radcliff and e-learning connector extraordinaire.  They’ll also hear the Ohio perspective from KnowledgeWorks CEO Chad Wick and Ohio Education Matters ED Andy Benson.
Why is this summit important?  For one, it signals that a state like Ohio is serious about re-imagining the K-12 experience and exploring what a 21st century education really looks like.  More importantly, though, it is looking to do so through a practical lens, where the hopes and aspirations of e-learning will be explored through the very-real view of the very-scary Ohio budget.
We also know that if the intellectual firepower speaking from the rostrum in Columbus on the 25th can’t figure out how to make this work in Ohio, no one can.  Florida Virtual School is the gold standard when it comes to online learning in the K-12 environment.  Vander Ark/Radcliff has led the primary drumbeat for successful digital learning leadership, particularly at the state level.  And KnowledgeWorks has successfully led change in Ohio’s high schools through its Ohio High Schools Transformation Initiative and its NewTech Network.  So it looks like the e-learning A team will be in the house, ready to “dot the i.”
Hopefully, we will see a real action plan coming out of this Learning Unbound summit.  A plan that Ohio Gov. John Kasich can adopt as part of his leaner, ROI-focused budget and a plan on which other states can model their own e-learning opportunities.  That isn’t too much to ask for, is it, A focused plan of action coming out of a positive day of rhetoric?